Rewind: Ezra Pound

It is 68 years this week since Ezra Pound won the Bollingen Prize for his poetry. A seemingly squeaky clean act. A person being recognised for their success – yeah, great, we get it.

But, there is a slight catch. Pound is a man I have struggled with for years. You see, he raises a problem. He is an astute and powerful poet, albeit at times cryptic. The problem does not lie in poetic ineptitude. In fact, the problem is quite how good he is. Pound was not just a good poet, but also, after living through World War I, a fascist. He became anti-Semitic and openly supported Hitler. He was charged for treason and kept in detention in Pisa, eventually suffering from a mental breakdown.

Pound won the Bollingen Prize for work that he began whilst in detention; for work created after having grown into the controversial figure we now know of. But he was still commended for his skills, and not just that, but was the first person to win the Bollingen Prize.

Pound, as a poet, is seductive. Alba reads, “As cool as the pale wet leaves / of lily-of-the-valley /She lay beside me in the dawn”. He is delicate and softly articulate, creating intensely sensory tableaux as well as, in his longer pieces, threaded narratives that are unavoidably good. Pound too, was an excellent editor, significantly aiding the transformation of The Waste Land into the canon that it is today. Boy is Pound good, but boy is he not squeaky clean.

The notion of reconciling yourself, artistically, with those who are morally dubious is a difficult one. Much like the well-known dilemma that a young Joseph Stalin was actually quite attractive, how does one reconcile themselves with the knowledge that Ezra Pound was far from a moral figure?

Separating the artist from the artwork is an argument exercised over and over again. It would be handy, certainly. It seems troubling that Pound was the man that he was. But art is rarely settling. Interpreting art with a sensitivity for its creator can often bring substantial worth. I don’t like Pound as a person. But the delicacy of some of his poetry is not shattered by his discordant persona.

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It is made easier with distance. For posthumously, and with years gone by, detachment raises its head. And so I read Pound, and I like it. Most of the conflict he inflicts, I decide, is not in his specific immorality, but in his general contribution to the misery that proliferates into this world and lingers. I hate him for adding to this multitude. But I am not tarnished in respecting his poetry.